Downturn in U.S.-China relationsThe United States and China are entering a period of long-term contention likely to get worse during the next administration, no matter which party holds power. That dynamic will be on display this week, with the state visit by China’s president.
In the run-up to Xi Jinping’s visit, which will include a state dinner at the White House, the Obama administration has tried to show the U.S.-China relationship as constructive and even friendly. The administration has decided it won’t impose sanctions on Chinese entities in response to the massive hack of U.S. government personnel data last year, at least before Xi’s visit. White House officials have been working hard this month to advance bilateral cooperation on climate change and an agreement not to attack each other’s critical infrastructure during peace time, in the hope the summit can claim some substance.
But the visit, starting Tuesday, will be overshadowed by disputes over China’s growing military assertiveness, its expanding economic espionage online and its crackdown on human rights at home. Republican presidential candidates have promised less coddling of Beijing if they are elected president. Democrats warn that the U.S.-China relationship isn’t getting better any time soon.
“I’m ultimately quite hopeful about U.S.-China relations. But I also think we have to be cognizant the level of anxiety, competition and tension in our relationship is here to stay,” said Kurt Campbell, who served as the State Department’s top Asia official under Hillary Clinton. “We need to learn to work with that, as opposed to trying to go back to some period of time when U.S.-China relations were less difficult. That period is over.”
The future of the U.S.-China relationship is not yet written, but China has taken a series of unhelpful actions in recent months, he said - including militarization in the South China Sea, sailing ships into U.S. waters near Alaska and hacking U.S. government computers to steal the personal information of millions of current and former officials.
“I do question some of the moves that the president and his team have made in anticipation of the summit,” Campbell said about Xi. “It would be terrific if the president could clarify the direction that he wants to go ahead, make clear he’s going to tackle some of these issues.”
For many Democrats, the U.S.-China relationship is destined for prolonged tension due to Chinese economic and trade practices, including what they see as currency manipulation and mistreatment of U.S. companies that do business there. Just as Xi is meeting with U.S. tech leaders in Seattle, the Chinese government is demanding U.S. firms agree to controversial policies that would force foreign businesses to give Chinese government access to their data and intellectual property.
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, whose founder John Podesta chairs Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said that American businesses are increasingly concerned that the promise of success in the Chinese market is now being undermined by Chinese protectionism and unfair treatment.
“People see China through the lens of stagnating wages in the U.S., the impact of the economic relationship and how this really hits certain economic sectors really hard and does put downward pressure on wages,” she said. “That will create very few anchors for a positive relationship over the next several decades in the U.S. And that’s something we are all going to have to deal with.”
President Barack Obama’s strategy of talking tough on China without openly confronting it is becoming increasingly untenable. For example, although Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has repeatedly said that the U.S. is under no obligation to respect Chinese requests to stay 12 miles away from reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea, the White House hasn’t actually told the Pentagon whether it is allowed to travel within that zone.
When pressed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain last week, the assistant secretary of defense for Asia, David Shear, testified that the U.S. military hasn’t actually sailed within 12 miles of a Chinese-claimed reef since 2012. “Freedom of navigation operations is one tool in a larger tool box that we’re going to need to use in fixing this issue. And we’re in the process of putting together that tool box,” Shear said.
The new commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, testified that the military has compiled options for pushing back against what he has called China’s “Great Wall of Sand,” but that the White House was still considering what to do. “The South China Sea is no more China’s than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico’s,” he said.
Twenty-six members of Congress, led by Randy Forbes and including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, wrote to Obama and Carter last week urging them to allow the U.S. military to assert its right to operate in waters near Chinese islands.
“The administration says, ‘We’re going to do studies of our options,’ but by that time, China is going to say, ‘This is the international norm and you can’t violate it,’” Forbes told me in an interview. “We’ve not only let the Chinese do these things, we’ve let them censor us in what we can say and do.”
During the political season, it’s easy to find breathless bashing of China and just as easy to dismiss it. But there has been a broad bipartisan consensus throughout several administrations around the strategy of engaging China constructively while balancing that with action to ensure China doesn’t abuse its rising power to violate international norms and threaten U.S. and allied interests.
As this summit will demonstrate, there is now a bipartisan consensus that this balance is out of whack. For different reasons, both Republicans and Democrats want a more assertive U.S. stance. Xi should enjoy this visit: It may be his last warm welcome to Washington.
*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about national security and foreign affairs.
by Josh Rogin